Two Firms, One Team: From Outlets to Exteriors, Adjaye Associates and Cooper Robertson Partner to Shape Princeton’s New Museum, Summer 2023

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the complexities of building a new museum in the heart of the Princeton campus from the perspectives of the architects, contractors, and University staff leading the project.

Architects Erin Flynn of Cooper Robertson and Marc McQuade of Adjaye Associates on the site of new Museum building, April 2023. Photo: Joseph Hu

Nearly every week, Marc McQuade, Graduate School Class of 2007, walks the same Princeton University pathways he regularly traversed as a master’s student in the School of Architecture. In those days, he often went directly from “making models in the studio” to studying near the panoramic window in Marquand Library, visiting “the Museum and seeing what was on view,” or attending a class session in one of the Museum’s object study rooms.

Now associate principal at Adjaye Associates, the design architects for the Princeton University Art Museum’s expansive new building, McQuade regularly surveils the construction of the facility in “literally the same place” where he spent most of his time as a student.

He is usually joined by Erin Flynn, partner-in-charge at Cooper Robertson, the executive architects for the project. In 2018, their two firms teamed up to win the opportunity to design a new Museum for Princeton, bringing with them portfolios full of well-known museum projects. At the time, Adjaye Associates had just completed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, while Cooper Robertson had recently finished the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York as executive architect to Renzo Piano—one of approximately sixty museum projects in its portfolio. The partnership between the firms was not a new one; they had established their relationship as design architect–executive architect while working on the new Studio Museum in Harlem, beginning in 2014.

From the start, the two firms showed a deep understanding of the challenges of constructing a dramatically larger teaching museum in the historic center of Princeton’s campus. “Up front it was really clear that this is a project that had some complexities to it,” McQuade said. “[Adjaye Associates] is always thinking about our projects from various site-specific and client-specific ways. Not only is it a fascinating project architecturally, in terms of its context and its location and what the constraints were with that site, but also from a programming point of view and a curatorial point of view.” To meet those challenges, “we wanted to work with the team that had experience with encyclopedic collections and different curators, and that we were comfortable with, in order to maximize the value for Princeton University and for the community here,” he continued. As Flynn put it, “We really enjoyed working together on the Studio Museum project, and it seemed like a natural continuation of that relationship.”

Entrance Hall and Grand Stair under construction

As a representative of the design architects, McQuade is tasked with “overseeing and pushing forward [Principal Architect] David [Adjaye]’s vision for the design of all aspects of the building, from the inside to the outside, including integrated casework.” Flynn describes herself as “a quarterback” who does a little of everything to manage the technical aspects of the project. Both believe that their firms’ partnership is unusual in that both Adjaye Associates and Cooper Robertson are deeply involved in a project from inception through completion, working closely to tackle challenges collaboratively as they arise. “There’s hardly any daylight between us,” Flynn said, referring to their respective firms. “We may have different roles and responsibilities, but we are one team.” The firms share Slack channels and meet weekly; their architects even draw together, using software that allows for real-time collaboration. When asked if they had faced any specific issues with the design and construction that could only be solved together, they both emphatically answered, “Everything.”

Their original remit was ambitious—to design and construct a university art museum that dramatically increases the size of the one it replaces, harmonizes with the historic buildings around it, preserves key campus walkways, collapses hierarchies that might be implied by the layout of the collections galleries, and shapes moments of intimacy of the kind that are fondly remembered in the old building. Further complicating their task, the team needed to figure out how to incorporate a preexisting research library as well as a program that included dramatic new galleries and a suite of differently scaled educational and social spaces, a new state-of-the-art conservation studio, visitor amenities such as a café, and offices for Museum staff and the faculty in the Department of Art & Archaeology—and do it at a construction site constrained from all sides.

Interior Glulam ceiling in one of the Museum’s pavilions

The design team was undaunted: “From a design point of view, all challenges are opportunities,” stated McQuade. “One of the things we were really excited about in the beginning was the fact that the project was located in the historic part of campus—the sacred part. It’s a great responsibility to build there, and to double the size of a building that is already the biggest in the area. How do you do that in a place where, for generations, people have loved the scale and materiality of the place? How do you make a bigger building, but one that doesn’t necessarily feel bigger from the outside, and feels like it was always meant to be there?”

Western facade of the new building

David Adjaye addressed these priorities in his initial concept of nine interconnected cubes, or pavilions, that are carefully massed to integrate into the campus, with galleries spread across the second floor and exterior materials that complement the surrounding buildings. As Flynn pointed out, the new building “incorporates the natural pathways of the campus and aligns with key paths, including the diagonal path that was so important. A student or a community member can just walk through the building or go to an education class on the ground floor without visiting the Museum.” Because of the thoughtfully placed  “sight lines through the building, they’ll know it’s a museum. I think it’s a really successful academic building as well as a museum building,” she said.

Princeton’s School of Architecture prepared McQuade—and his colleague Matthew Storrie, Graduate School Class of 2012—for Adjaye Associate’s distinctive approach to design. “The School of Architecture is unique in that it is a place that is often looking at the balance between theory and practice. What I love about working with David is that it’s not only about the practice of architecture, but it’s also about the narratives and the research and the histories that get you there, and then how that translates to the practicalities of something like waterproofing or built form. It’s really in the dialogue between those two things where  I think you can make some amazing work, and that’s always been something that David has been focused on,” McQuade said.

Now that construction is in full swing, McQuade and Flynn collaborate to ensure that the new building will work in the ways that were intended. On any given day, the architects are engaged in meetings with collaborators, including mechanical and structural engineers, lighting consultants, and the University’s capital projects team. “A typical day is quite varied. There’s a really rich range of what one might be thinking about and talking about that’s informing the work we do, including art commissions and technical issues, contractor costs, and everything in between,” McQuade said. Flynn added, “We’re reviewing mock-ups, we’re looking at materiality, we’re problemsolving, and we’re going to the site to observe. Overall, we are looking at where we are in the construction and making sure everything is as it was planned to be.”

Entrance Court under construction

Everything is planned, “down to every little detail,” said McQuade. From door handles to the texture of the material lining an elevator, “there’s a level of passion down to even how an outlet might sit in a concrete wall that we’re really thinking through.” The ultimate goal “is that it should feel so wonderful and natural and at ease that one never thinks about it.”

Christine Minerva
Writing and Communications Assistant